By Jason Lipshin
Marlon Brando is often cited as one of the best method actors of his generation because he sought to reproduce, as faithfully as possible, the experience of a particular group of people. For instance, in On the Waterfront (1954), Brando spent months immersing himself in the style, cadence, and attitudes of Hoboken longshoremen in the interest of generating what he felt what was the truest depiction of their experience of life. Ian Bogost is what he calls a method designer – an individual who seeks to understand another designer’s particular point of view by attempting to craft a work according to the same conventions and constraints. With his hilarious new meta-game Cow Clicker, a game about Facebook games, Bogost takes on the procedural rhetoric, simplistic design, and exploitative attitude of many of the most popular social networking games. Cow Clicker, thus, takes Brando’s methodology and gives it a subversive twist, producing what I believe to be one of the first truly successful attempts to pin down what satire in games might look like.
Cow Clicker emerged out of a widespread distaste for the social-networking genre that has propagated
itself throughout the game making community, particularly after the runaway success of Zynga’s Facebook
game Farmville, which has currently surpassed both World of Warcraft and the Wii in terms of general
popularity. Farmville has become so universally despised because its developers willfully subscribe to
some questionable design ethics: they replace any meaningful or interesting play with continuous level
grinding, hardwire “viral marketing” strategies into the very logic of the game, and encourage you to sell
your personal information to advertisers for the promise of more Farm Cash. Even beyond such rampantly
condemnatory articles like David Hayward’s “Fuck the Users,” Zynga’s CEO Mark Pincus has been fairly
open about his design philosophy: “I did every horrible thing in the book to just get revenue right away.”
Enter Cow Clicker. Here is Bogost’s partial description of the game:
You get a cow. You can click on it. In six hours, you can click it again. Clicking earns you clicks.
You can buy custom “premium” cows through micropayments (the Cow Clicker currency is called
“mooney”), and you can buy your way out of the time delay by spending it. You can publish feed
stories about clicking your cow, and you can click friends’ cow clicks in their feed stories.
Cow Clicker is Facebook games “distilled to their essence,” because it encourages compulsion and
repetition with the only promise being a worthless, extrinsic reward. Like Farmville, the game is so
incredibly boring to play in real-time that you can actually spend your money to speed it up to make it more
interesting. Of course, in doing so, you are actually paying more money to play the game more often
(despite the fact that you thought you were paying more to play less), because temporal investment in the
game increases exponentially – by playing more in order to get your hands on those prized premium cows,
you are actually obligated to click more of your friend’s cow clicks. As in Farmville, this tiered set of
display trophies function as the most perfect instantiation of “keeping up with the Joneses” – they literally
mean nothing, but staying competitive requires more and more of your time and labor. All of this despite
the fact that you found the game incredibly boring in the first place; so boring, in fact, that you were morethan-
willing to pay more money to play less.
Perhaps the cruelest joke in Cow Clicker (and by extension Farmville) is that, outside of social capital, the
game rewards you with no new abilities, operations, or even challenges. The game is, thus, both banal and
infinite – it is never ending and always the same. This Sisyphean combination of elements is somehow sad,
exploitative, and weirdly poignant all at the same time – friends are reduced to how you can use them, time
is spent working towards rewards you don’t want or need, and play is reduced to work in one insidious,
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